A map of Costa Rica’s jaguar populations reads like a dartboard after an assault by drunken bar patrons.
Here and there, population centers are scattered across the board, in random locations.
In between these isolated spots, the map is blank.
Connecting these dots is crucial to the endangered jaguars’ survival – according to a group of 30 or so of Latin America’s leading wildlife experts, biologists and environment officials, who gathered last week for a conference called “Paseo de los Jaguares” at the lush Hotel Bougainvillea in Heredia, north of San José.
In a room ringed by colorful maps of every country from the United States to Brazil, experts discussed the possibilities for creating a system of international biological corridors, or wildlife highways, to connect existing wildlands inhabited by jaguars.
The maps show funnel-like corridors between the parks – a sort of Pan-American Highway for wildlife that would allow populations to intermingle and could stretch thousands of miles.
“For years, biologists had written off these places between the parks and protected areas.Now we are starting to see how important they are for jaguars and other migratory animals – even in places inhabited by humans,” explained Alan Rabinowitz, a jaguar expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society, the U.S. nonprofit group that sponsored the meeting.
He said jaguars are among the few species of large carnivores in the world that range widely, in some cases as much as 500 miles.
Populations isolated because of loss of habitat, explained Rabinowitz, become inbred, and more vulnerable to habitat changes, hunters and scarcity of food.
“It’s a major factor in the extinction possibility,” Rabinowitz said.
Costa Rica lies smack in the middle of the jaguar’s range, a key link in the chain of wildlife corridors that could buck the trend toward extinction, experts say.
While the country’s jaguar population numbers are still unknown, biologists are certain the regions around Tortuguero, on the Caribbean coast, Santa RosaNational Park, in the northwestern province of Guancaste, and CorcovadoNational Park, on the southern Pacific coast, harbor remnant populations.
Linking these parklands will require creativity, according to José Joaquín Calvo, director of the wildlife program at the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE).
“This isn’t about creating new protected areas. Costa Rica already has enough. It’s about making the most of the ones we already have,” he explained.
In a region already strapped for cash, he said looking for alternative means of financing is critical.
Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, former Environment Minister, proposed a “Payment for Biodiversity” program, which might be modeled after the popular National Forest Financing Fund (FONAFIFO) “Payment for Environmental Services” system that protects forest areas.
Rodríguez said it would allow farmers and others to receive payments to keep land traversed by jaguars and other endangered species undeveloped.
“It’s a simple concept. When we pay someone for the presence of jaguars on their property, they will stop killing them,” he said in a presentation at the conference.
Rodríguez believes Costa Rica has a head start when it comes to protecting land – and endangered species.
“Our political system understands that forest areas and protected habitat can offer major economic benefits,” he said, tapping across the stage in cowboy boots and jeans. “Biodiversity is worth more than gold here.”
Standing in front of a room filled with the balding heads of some of Latin America’s foremost jaguar experts and conservation leaders,Marco Vinicio Araya, of the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), asked a simple question.
“Who has seen a jaguar?” he asked. Only a few scattered people raised their hands.
“You see? We have a problem. We can’t see what we are fighting to defend. This is why education is so important,” Araya said. Education, he said, is critical in convincing local farmers that jaguars are worth more alive than dead.
According to Roberto Salom of the Wildlife Conservation Society in San José, biologists estimate more than 20 jaguars are killed each year by farmers who believe the animals have killed their cattle.
“But the number could be much higher,” he said.
Araya, Salom and others hope a new system of cataloging jaguar sightings – and shootings – could help biologists better understand jaguar-cattle relationships, and then use that information to develop sitespecific education programs.
Over the next few months, biologists, with funding and support from the Wildlife Conservation Society, will spend time in regions likely to be used as corridors, interviewing area residents, looking for tracks and conducting population estimates in adjacent park areas.
“It’s called ‘ground-truthing.’ We know from looking at maps where we think the jaguars are traveling. Now we need to get out in the field and look for ourselves,” Salom said.
The results of the program, agreed the biologists who attended the two-day conference, could mean improved habitats for a whole range of birds and mammals that travel through Latin America – not just jaguars.
“If jaguars – a top predator in the food chain – are in good shape, that tells us everything below them is doing okay, too,” Calvo said.
Payments for Biodiversity: An Idea Whose Time Has Come
It’s a new twist on an old idea. Instead of paying people to hunt an animal, you pay them not to.
“We are losing jaguars outside our parks because ranchers and others believe them to be less valuable than cattle. But assign them a value, and the mentality changes,” expalins Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, former Environment Minister.
The concept applies not just to so-called charismatic animals like jaguars or scarlet macaws, but also to lesser known endangered plant species and trees, he said.
“The potential of a program like this is enormous,” he said, particularly in a cash-strapped country like Costa Rica.
According to José Joaquín Calvo, director of the wildlife program at the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), such a scenario is a win-win situation, providing farmers and landowners with a supplemental income while at the same time encouraging protection of the country’s valuable biodiversity.
“From an economic standpoint, it is sustainable. Protecting our biodiversity means more tourism, which in turn brings in more money that we can use to fund the program,” Calvo said.
Though the idea is still in its infancy, Calvo said the Environment Ministry is currently working to find sponsors and funding.